Sharing burdens and carrying loads.

May only the truth be spoken, and may only the truth be heard,
In the Name of the One True and Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

For anyone who has been in the Church for any amount of time, the lessons assigned in the BCP lectionary for this morning will be familiar ones.

We all know, as Paul writes to the Galatians, that part of the calling on our lives as Christians is that we must bear one another’s burdens.  And many of us, I’m sure, are familiar with the healing of the 10 men with leprosy: they cry out to have their burden lifted, Christ hears and has mercy on them, all are healed, but only one returns to say “thank you”.

They’re familiar lessons, but as I sat down to read them this week, I was struck by something that, for how ever many times I’ve read it, I never really noticed before.

I was sitting at my desk, my Bible opened up to Galatians 6, where Paul writes “brothers [and sisters], if anyone is caught in any transgressions, you who are spiritual should restore them in a spirit of gentleness… bear one another’s burdens”…

“Oh good”, I thought.  “This is an easy one!” 

But then I kept reading.

“Bear one another’s burdens”, but then, two verses later, Paul writes “let each one test his own work… for each will have to bear his own load.”

Hold on…  What’s this about? 

He just told us that we have to bear each other’s burdens… and then, two sentences later, he’s telling us that we each have to bear them ourselves?  What’s up with that!?  That can’t be right, can it?

So naturally, like any student of scripture, I opened up every Bible translation I could find, reading them side-by-side.  And, amazingly, all agreed: “bear one another’s burdens, but, each one must bear his own load.” 

Then, being the nerd that I am, I left the office and ran home at lunch to get my Greek New Testament, just to make sure my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me.  And sure enough: yes, the scriptures are very clear: it is the solemn, God-given duty of every Christian to bear one another’s burdens, and, at the same time, each must bear their own load.

So what’s the difference?  What’s the difference between a burden and a load?

Calling out to God for what?

Every person who has ever lived knows what it is to have a burden.  A burden is something that weighs us down, that pushes us beyond our ability.

As I was thinking on it, a burden is something that causes our head to be cast down as we lean into the weight; it’s something that causes our eyes to be downcast and our bodies and attitudes to be come rigid and tense as we try to bear up against something that, in all reality, has the potential to crush us.

And yes, everyone know what it is to have a burden.  Your burden and my burden aren’t alike: something that might seem easy to you could be the very thing that is wearing me down, the thing that tempts me to go it alone, until finally, trusting only in myself, I find my soul crushed. A burden can be anything, but the thing they have in common is that they keep our heads down, they keep us from looking up and calling out to Christ, they make us rigid and tense as we try to brace ourselves against a weight that is too much for us to bear.

Everyone has a burden.  It could be an illness, a disease that we feel we have to battle alone as we become bitter in the process; it could be an addiction – drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, gossip, or an addiction to creating drama in bad relationships – that keeps us from being who God wants us to be; it could be financial, stuck at the bottom of a pit of debt, or the reality that we live in a broken world where it’s cheaper to feed your kids chips and pepsi than milk and vegetables; or, our burden could be could be pride over how well we’re doing; or, it could be a burden of shyness that makes us sit back and feel insecure; it could be guilt over something that we’ve done that we feel is just too bad to really be forgiven; it could be the burden of our own life stories, as almost everyone has some traumatic hurt in their past which causes them to put on a mask, to put on a happy face as they try to bear the burden alone. 
Everyone has a burden.

But the Good News is that we, the Church, the Body of Christ, together bear one another’s burdens.

That Gospel way of life that Jesus invites us to live calls us to lift up our heads, lift up our eyes from those burdens that are too much for us to bear; and as we lift up our heads, we see Christ lifted up, we hear the Gospel that burdens are lifted at Calvary, and with our heads lifted and our eyes set upon the Lord, we notice our brothers and sisters around us to bear our burdens, knowing that – by God’s grace – what is impossible for me might not even be a temptation for you, and all of us together, with our eyes on the Lord, and filled with the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit will bear one another up so that we can do the work God has given us to do!  Amen?

But did you hear that last part?

Bear one another up so that we can do the work God has given us to do.

Bear one another’s burdens so that we can each carry our God-given load.

Everyone has a burden.  Everyone wants it lifted.  But, once it’s lifted, are we willing to carry our own load, to do the work God has given us to do?

One of the things I’ve learned over 18 years of one sort of pastoral ministry or another is that God never blesses us for our own sake.

Blessing, or healing, or the easing of a burden is never an end in itself.

If I say “Lord, heal me, so I can get back to living my own life my own way”, that’s not a prayer prayed in faith.  That’s a prayer prayed in selfishness.

If I say “Lord, this burden is too much for me; take it away so I can go back to relying on myself”, then we’ve missed the point.  No wonder the answer to that prayer is “no”.

God doesn’t bless us for our own sake.  He heals us, He blesses us, He strengthens us for His glory, so we can be part of His glorious story of salvation which we are called to bring to all people.

We, God’s people bound together by the Holy Spirit, bear one another’s burdens so that we can get back to doing that work that God has given us to do, so that we all can get back to bearing that easy yoke and light load of sharing the good news with others who need to hear it, of discipling, taking another Christian under your wing as an apprentice, as each person learns what it means to live as a Christian, to live as an apprentice learning to share the image and likeness of our Lord and Master.

Yes, we are to bear one another’s burdens so that each can carry their own load.  We bear one another’s burdens so that each can be a productive and fruitful member of the Body of Christ, the Church.

A Lesson from Lepers

I think we see a perfect example of all of this in the story of Christ healing the lepers.

Leprosy, as you know, was an incredible burden.  It was an all-consuming disease, there was no hiding it, but not only did it take your body, leprosy took away everything.

For those bearing the burden of leprosy, it meant they were fully banished from the life of the community.  Leprosy took away their work, it took away their families.  These 10 men in the Gospel, they were sons with elderly parents who needed caring for, they were husbands and fathers with wives and children who needed food and a roof over their head, they were men with real skill, bakers, carpenters, metal workers, leaders in the marketplace, leaders in their communities, each making a living with bills to be paid and work to do as they provided for themselves and for those they love.

Their burden, leprosy, took it all away. 

They couldn’t work, they couldn’t see their parents or wives or sons or daughters, they couldn’t provide for their families, as those they loved either relied on the goodness of their neighbours, or faced homelessness.

(You know, I can’t help but notice a similarity between these effects of leprosy in Jesus’ time, and the effects that addiction has in our own day)

They have this all-consuming burden.

And, turning to Christ, their burden is lifted.  But it’s a weird story!  They aren’t healed instantly and told to go on living the way they are. 

No, not at all.  How does Jesus heal them?  He says “go, show yourselves to the priest”.

Have you noticed this before?  He doesn’t wave His hand and say “your request has been granted, now go about your merry way”. 

No.  Jesus says “go back to town.  Present yourself to the leaders of your community.  Have them declare that you’re back, that the one who was lost has been found, have them declare that yes, you used to be a leper, but your burden has been lifted, so now you can get back to doing the work you have been given to do”.

Have you noticed that before?  In healing the lepers, Jesus doesn’t answer their prayer and leave them to go about their way.  Jesus answers their prayer by saying “go back to town”.  Jesus lifts their burden so that they can get back to carrying their load, so that they can get back to being sons, and husbands, and fathers, so that they can stop being outcasts and get on with being fruitful members of the community, so they can get back to using the gifts and skills God has given them, and as they get back, they carry with them this amazing, life-changing testimony of God’s fathomless mercy, as they now live lives to God’s glory in the world.

Friends, God doesn’t bless us for our own sake; God doesn’t lift our burdens so we can go back to living our own way. 

A Challenge for Ministry

My brothers and sisters, think about how the Church reaches out to those in need?

So often we as individuals, and together as the Church, will ease the burden of those who are weighed down. 

But are we sharing that burden as an end in itself?  Or are we inviting them to lift up their head, to see Christ lifted up, to recognize us standing around them as Brothers and Sisters, supporting and inviting them to bear their own proper load, to join us in that God-given work of being the Church, of being life-long apprentices of Jesus our Lord and Master, as those who were lost join their voices to the chorus of the redeemed in every age who proclaim the Good News of salvation?

My friends, we are to bear one another’s burdens; but we are to do it in a way that enables each, that teaches each, that supports each in doing the work we have been given to do, as many members knit together into one Body under one Head, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

May God Almighty guide us and lead us as we bear one another’s burdens, not as an end in itself, but so that, by His grace, as people who know what it is to have their burdens lifted, we can together sing “To God be the Glory, great things He has done…” now and forevermore.  Amen.